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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Al-Quds University and Radical Chic


The Arab name for Jerusalem is Al-Quds. Al-Quds Day, for example, is observed in Iran and some other countries as a day for denouncing Israel. And then there is an Al-Quds University (AQU) in Jerusalem which is dedicated to ... well, all kinds of things, but, in my interpretation of its website, primarily to pushing an anti-Israel political agenda.

But wait, is that a fair description ? AQU has influential and powerful connections to Western institutions which would seem to foreclose any crude or hateful stance on Israel or on peaceful solutions to the Israel-Arab conflict. For example, AQU has agreements of collaboration with the Jewish Brandeis University in Massachusetts, and also with Bard College in New York, under its Jewish president Leon Botstein. ( Bard's interest, I have been told, is in building bridges with the Palestinians, in helping to improve the education of Palestinians, etc. , all aims with which I find myself in full agreement. And I suppose Brandeis would have the same kind of objectives in mind when it shares its resources and lends its good name to the promotion of AQU.)

So what gives here ?

The AQU website, unfortunately, leaves no doubt about the strident political commitments of the institution. The site's central "General Information" is a lengthy, rambling history of Jerusalem from an anti-Israel point of view. The establishment of Israel in 1948 is described as "the 1948 Nakba," using the Palestinian nationalist term meaning "Catastrophe." Beyond that, there are references to various writers and scholars all of whom seem to say that the Jews have not had a historical connection to the land of Israel, that there was no such thing as King David, that the Western Wall could not have been related to a Jewish Temple, etc. etc. Obviously, one could make some sort of reasonable case for some of these assertions. But this General Information is a piece of special pleading; it is all tied together with propagandistic glue. Whatever writings fit the
parti pris is carefully adduced; whatever scholarship tends in a different direction is carefully ignored.

About two years ago there was a controversy at Barnard College about an anthropologist, Nadia Abu El Haj, whose politically-inspired writings, similarly, held that Jews have no historic claim to the land of Israel. Professor Alan Segal, also of Barnard, is an expert on the relevant archaeology and wrote a trenchant criticism of Abu El Haj. This article can also serve as a criticism of AQU's scholarship.

Over and above AQU's unfortunate and unscholarly politicization of the history of Israel, I am also worried about how it might deal with certain other matters of Jewish history. In particular, what kind of teaching is done at AQU about the Holocaust ? It might be a problem for them, judging by how they treat the issue of Jerusalem. There is a revealing article by Mikael Tossavainen on the place of the Holocaust in Arab political thinking. It sheds a great deal of light on the matter at hand.

Has either Bard or Brandeis looked into any of this ? Has either of these institutions tried to restrain their protégé in any way ? Not as far as I was able to find out. On the contrary, both Bard and Brandeis, is their public pronouncements, have nothing but praise.

That seems curious considering what we must assume to be the ordinary, customary criteria for scholarship at these institutions. It would be insulting to think, and wrong, that anything less than a critical weighing of evidence and dispassionate scholarship can win acclaim at either Bard or Brandeis. Obviously no institution is perfect, and it would be naive to think that the ideals of scholarship are always attained even in our most elite institutions. But on the other hand, no, the propaganda-as-scholarship that emanates from AQU surely could not be tolerated in our best colleges and universities, and not at B & B, on any matter other than Al-Quds. So why, why, do both Bard and Brandeis "collaborate," as they say, with this sorry institution ?

The answer, I suggest, lies in the title of this posting: Radical Chic. Of course the reference is to Tom Wolfe's classic description of the relationship between Leonard Bernstein and the Black Panthers. Bernstein catered to people that he knew, or should have known, to be brutes. Why ? He did not, fundamentally, regard them as his equals, but he wished, in his vanity, to be associated with the frisson of Black Power. He obviously did not employ standards that he would employ for educated white people when he patronized the Black Panthers with his money, his connections, and his fawning condescension. Something like that,
mutatis mutandis, I see as the heart of B & B's relationship to AQU.

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